Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Aeneid (Book I, 88–101)

I'm taking a Latin poetry class, and one of our assignments was to translate this passage from the Aeneid. So I did:

In a moment, the torrent tore
away the beams of midday sun from
widening Trojan eyes, and
darkness loomed over the deep.
Suddenly the scene seared with
lightning pouring down from heaven—
thunder ripping through the ether.
Death’s pale visage
leered at the ships from every side, and
a hoary lapse of fear
gripped miserable Aeneas,
filling his joints with ice.
His hands raked the heavens, and
with weary words he wept:
“O, you happy men of Troy
who greeted final darkness
where first you saw the sun—
to die at the feet of your fathers
and the mighty Teucrian gate.
O, Tydides, fiercest of the Greeks,
was your sword so cruel, so hateful
that its point would not find my breast?
O, Ilium, was there no room for my corpse
in your blood-drenched clay?
Would that the soul sprang from my body
where now lies mighty Hector,
slain by Achilles’ hand.
Or I might have slipped into Death’s current
by the banks of familiar Simoeis,
where now the shields, swords, and limbs
of those many mighty men
have withered into rust and ruin."

Here's a translation of the same passage from Project Gutenberg:

And heav'n itself is ravish'd from their eyes.
Loud peals of thunder from the poles ensue;
Then flashing fires the transient light renew;
The face of things a frightful image bears,
And present death in various forms appears.
Struck with unusual fright, the Trojan chief,
With lifted hands and eyes, invokes relief;
And, "Thrice and four times happy those," he cried,
"That under Ilian walls before their parents died!
Tydides, bravest of the Grecian train!
Why could not I by that strong arm be slain,
And lie by noble Hector on the plain,
Or great Sarpedon, in those bloody fields
Where Simois rolls the bodies and the shields
Of heroes, whose dismember'd hands yet bear
The dart aloft, and clench the pointed spear!"

I like mine better for a few reasons. One, although this guy uses a lot of the same constructions as Vergil (admittedly more than I do), he doesn't use the same poetic devices. I'm much more free with my syntax and diction, but I play with aliteration and stress, which were two of Vergil's most frequently employed devices.

Two, the Aeneid does not rhyme. My translation doesn't rhyme. Instead, I use accentual verse, which is the form ancient English poetry took. Mine is more English than his. Also, I think it works better for modern audiences, since rhyming verse is currently out of fashion.

Three, my translation is more readable. It's still poetic, but when you're reading literally thousands of lines of verse, readability is only courteous.

That said, I'm quite a fan of his line, "Then flashing fires the transient light renew."

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Horror and Scary Things

When I was a tender lad of fourteen or so, The Ring came out. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I thought it was a Japanese cinematic remake of the Wagner opera cycle, so I hastened with my brother to go see it. Well, turns out the 2002 film has nothing to do with Wagner. It's terrifying. To date, I have never been more scared. And while I spent many a sleepless night recuperating from my fears, I started to wonder about what made things scary. What frightens us? I've been reading a lot of Poe recently, so I've begun to ask myself these questions again.

Drawing mostly on my experiences from The Ring, I decided that, like comedy, the core of horror lies in things being slightly off—just not as they should be. Things being out of place or fundamentally wrong is also the heart of farce. But unlike comedy, in horror this abnormality is sinister. In The Ring, we have a girl who is categorically evil, and children are not supposed to be evil. Jason should not be able to pop up behind someone without moving. When I was in college I discovered that Freud had beaten me to the punch, and what I had termed abnormality, he had already called Unheimlichkeit, or the uncanny. He talked about how there's nothing particularly frightening about a forest or a girl singing, but if you hear the voice of a girl singing in the woods, it suddenly becomes frightening because those two things don't go together.

Back in high school, I played with the idea of writing a screenplay about a little frontier town (I was definitely influenced by Shyamalan's abortive The Village) plagued by a subtly demonic solitary man. In the film, I would make sure that the exterior doors of houses opened outwards rather than in. I would make light do awkward things—darkness under lit candles, but light coming from the bottom corners of the room. I'd just do a myriad of things to make the scenes covertly eerie without ever showing anything gruesome or jumpy. I wanted to create a sense of continued anxiety through means that most viewers would be unable to identify. I still think it would make for a great flick.

Poe certainly has a great deal of that in his works. His characters stumble through looming, strange landscapes. They encounter maniacs and wastelands and deformities. They become obsessive over things that one should not care about. Poe is in full command of my abnormality and Freud's Unheimlichkeit, but Poe is also a master of what I'm about to term as silence, or what H. P. Lovecraft calls the unknown:

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." So Lovecraft begins his behemoth treatise on horror in literature. I'm going to argue that the unknown or silence is the companion element to Unheimlichkeit. Just as comedy and horror share abnormality as a premise, so adventure and horror share silence. I'm hoping that you've seen ABC's Lost. If not, go watch it; it's good times. You can talk about how people watched that show for the characters or whatever, but the real reason we came back for episode after episode was Lost's silence. The show was never better than when Hurley said to Jack, "We got a problem. The manifest. Jack, the census. The names of everyone who survived, all 46 of us. I interviewed everyone, here, at the beach. Got their names. One of them, one of them isn't—Jack! One of them isn't in the manifest. He wasn't on the plane." How is it possible that one of these people wasn't on the plane? It was the most gripping question on the show, but the writers answered us only with silence. In that vacuum of information, we project all the unspoken possibilities our subconscious can come up with.

But alas, we eventually found out who this "Other" was and where he came from. With the grand exception of the "numbers," Lost never learned to maintain its silence. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes. It's always a marvel when Holmes catches the villain until he explains how he came to his conclusion. At that point, the detective's methods become banal. What makes Gandalf such a great character? His silence. Within the trilogy, we never really know where he came from, how he does his magic, or what he knows.

All of those examples are from the adventure genre, but silence crosses over eloquently into horror. All the great monster movies show only glimpses of the actual monster. And just as a great organist never pulls out all the stops, the greatest horror texts always hint that the story has much more devilish underpinnings than we will ever know. Take "Paleman" from Pan's Labyrinth. Before we ever see him, we see an abandoned pile of children's shoes in his lair. Although context makes it clear that he's been eating children, the collection of shoes remains an enigma. Sure, you eat kids, but what's with the shoes? Where are the other clothes? It's a perfect combination of abnormality and silence. We never find out where Paleman came from or why he does what he does, but we're confronted with images that just aren't right.

I need to come clean on something. My term that I'm so proud of, silence, is lifted wholesale from a Poe story, and here I'll turn for my last example of silence. The story is "Silence—A Parable," and aside from the obvious SILENCE which comes in so prominently at the end of the tale, the story is enveloped in silence. We begin with silence. Who are these people? Who is the demon, and who is the narrator? We never really know. But the demon begins to tell us a story about a nightmarish landscape, and a man who stands there listening. The demon curses him so he hears only silence, and he runs off in terror.

Why does the listener flee? Why was he content with standing in this horrifying abyss before the silence? Maybe in silence we project the worst of what we are and think onto the emptiness. Maybe we're haunted by the fear that no matter what is lurking in the silence, it is not as awful as what we have buried within us. Or maybe it's the horror of being entirely alone in a hostile universe. Whatever the process is, our imaginations will terrify us much more than any input the storyteller could provide. This is the hallmark of Poe's brilliance—he leaves so much unspoken and unrevealed. His most eloquent voice is silence. After all, he wrote the first detective story, a genre built entirely on the concept of the silence and the unknown. I think that Poe was not only aware of the mechanics of literary silence, but that those mechanics are what his parable is all about.

Poe ends the story with a lynx emerging from the tomb. The lynx stares at the demon. It "looked at him steadily in the face." Why? We don't know. But there the tale ends, and all we're left with is silence.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Troilus and Criseyde

Before I took a class on Chaucer, I had no idea that he had written anything other than The Canterbury Tales. Don't get me wrong—I'm as big a fan of the Tales as the next guy, but they're incomplete, and Chaucer wrote some other stuff that I think gets neglected. I'm talking about Troilus and Criseyde. This is one of the few times when someone does a better job than Shakespeare at telling a story. Bill's Troilus and Cressida is not even on par with Chaucer's. It's also the only extended work Chaucer ever finished, and it's just some of the best poetry in English.

I'll admit that my first experience with Chaucer was fueled entirely by the language—not the poetry, not the symbolism, not the plot, but his particular dialect of Middle English. I was fourteen and thought I hated poetry. But it was just such a thrill to read through this foreign text and somehow be able to understand it. I read "The Knight's Tale" and didn't complain even though I thought the story was supremely boring. It wasn't until last year when I picked up Troilus and Criseyde that I realized that Chaucer was a great poet. I'm including some of my favorite excerpts:

"So aungelik was hir natif beaute,
That lik a thing inmortal semed she,
As doth an hevenyssh perfit creature
That down were sent in scornynge of nature."

"…And brende hym so in soundry wise ay newe,
That sexti tyme a day he loste his hewe."

"For nevere yet so thikke a swarm of been
Ne fleigh , as Grekes for hym gonne fleen,
And thorugh the feld, in everi wightes eere,
Ther nas no cry but 'Troilus is there'

Now here, now ther, he hunted hem so faste,
Ther nas but Grekes blood—and Troilus.
Now hem he hurte, and hem al down he caste;
Ay wher he wente, it was arayed thus:
He was hire deth, and sheld and lif for us,
That as that day, ther dorste non withstonde
Whil that he held his blody swerd in honde."

"And who may stoppen every wikked tonge,
Or sown of belles whil that thei ben ronge?"

One of my all-time favorites:
"That nyght bitwixen drede and sikernesse,
Felten in love the grete worthynesse."

"O ye loveris, that heigh upon the whiel
Ben set of Fortune…
"And as in wynter leves ben biraft,
Ech after other, til the tree be bare,
So that ther nys but bark and braunche ilaft,
Lith Troilus, byraft of ech welfare,
Ibounden in the blake bark of care,
Disposed wood out of his wit to breyde,
So sore hym sat the chaungynge of Criseyde."

"I, combre-world, that may of nothyng serve,
But evere dye and nevere fulli sterve."

Another one of my favorites:
"O ye loveris, that heigh upon the whiel
Ben set of Fortune, in good aventure,
God leve that ye fynde ay love of stiel,
And longe mote youre lif in joie endure!
But whan ye comen by my sepulture,
Remembreth that youre felawe resteh there;
For I loved ek, though ich unworthi were."

"Endeth than love in wo? Ye, or men lieth,
And alle worldly blisse, as thynketh me."

"Wher ben hire armes and hire eyen cleere
That yesternyght this tyme with me were?"

Saturday, January 7, 2012

So…'bout 2011

You may have noticed that my blog was silent for a good two months. My personal and professional lives got out of control, and as a result my blogging suffered. I started two new jobs: one as a radio producer, and one as a music critic. Oh yeah, and I'm still a full time student.

If my absence made you totally distraught during the past two months, here's a link to all my reviews/interviews:


Expect to hear more from me in 2012. I'm working on a few new compositions that look promising. I've also got a better grip on my life in general.